March 2021: Solidarity Embrittles Empire

Today is Palm Sunday. And Palm Sunday is sometimes referred to as the most political Sunday of the church calendar year. 

Now, the word political may sound out of place with church, but it’s not a dirty word here. It definitely doesn’t mean “partisan” or having to do with political parties. It’s political in the sense that it has to do with power – who has it and who doesn’t. Palm Sunday is about speaking truth to power – holy truth against oppressive power.

Palm Sunday, in short, is when we remember an important day in Jesus’ ministry. It’s when he rides into Jerusalem, as the prophets said he would, as a challenge to the occupying Roman empire. 

He enters Jerusalem, not on a horse – an animal that symbolized war – but rather, on a donkey – an animal that symbolized peace. (This slide depicts the Triumphal Entry as painted by the artist Kim Ki-Chang. The moment is depicted as though it took place in Korea.)

Still, though Jesus subverts the empire’s expectations – indeed, many people’s expectations – he is met by ordinary people with lavish love – palm fronds, and the very cloaks off of their backs laid in Jesus’ path. 

They must have heard the rumors or seen the miracles: Jesus the healer, the rabbi, the revolutionary, the raiser of the dead, full of courage and wisdom and humility, willing to partner with the impoverished, and to make his place among the marginalized. 

And so the people climbed trees to see him. Hosanna, they shouted – save us. I think we really had to be there to get it. 

But for those in the know, Palm Sunday was full of symbols and messages we might miss today. To Jesus, this was no ordinary main street stroll. This was an act of political theater. With his body, with his life, he told a story about power – who has it and who doesn’t.

But I should let the scripture tell the story. So let’s go to the good news according to John and hear what that first Palm Sunday was like. In chapter 12, he says:

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

The Plot to Kill Lazarus

When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.

Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem

The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting,

“Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord – the King of Israel!”

Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!”

His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him. So the crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify. It was also because they heard that he had performed this sign that the crowd went to meet him. The Pharisees then said to one another, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!”

Spect-actors of Solidarity

When I think about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as an act of political theater, I’m reminded of a Brazilian political theater technique known as the Theatre of the Oppressed. Theatre of the Oppressed exists to bring oppression to ligiht. Participants are spect-actors: both spectators and actors.

Here is a photo of Theatre of the Oppressed in action. [Slide]

I had the chance to participate in the Theatre of the Oppressed a couple of years ago with Christians of various racial and ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, and gender identities. We were in Atlanta, GA, at the Forum for Theological Exploration.

We were sorted into small groups and told to hold a position we could be comfortable in for a while. With our bodies and with our chairs as our only props, we had to act out what we thought church should be.

We were so excited when we thought of how we’d act this out – what the church should be. We’d all be seated, pretending we were around a table. The activity was that we were going to hold a pose, and other people would walk and observe us.

To us, church should be someplace where there was always another open seat ready to welcome and affirm those who’d been outcasted. No matter the cost, no matter the consequences – just as Jesus had done.

Our plan was to each hold a gesture of enthusiastic welcome, as if to say, there you are, where have you been? We’d have an empty chair pulled out. And one member of our group, Bailey, who’s a transgender woman, was going to hold a pose of surprise, not yet seated at the table with us, but ready to join us. 

I held my arm up as if to wave Bailey in, and that was the pose I held as people walked by and examined us like we were a piece of art in a museum. I spent a long time in that position. All of us seated, already in the church, already at the table – we spent a long time looking into Bailey’s eyes as she held her hands up to her mouth in pleased surprise. 

With our bodies, we were acting out and acknowledging this truth that trans and queer people don’t always expect welcome – don’t always expect a place at the table for them. And though we began with broad smiles, I found myself weeping while I looked up at Bailey, while I watched her beautiful face, while the other participants watched us.

By the end, my face was drenched, and my arm was burning. And I turned around and found that I wasn’t the only one at the table who’d been crying. Because the dream of what we were portraying is sometimes so far from the reality of church, that indeed, sometimes courageous solidarity can be a surprise.

This act of political theater wasn’t just for the spectators – the spect-actors. It changed us, the actors, as well. What we hoped to portray, and what we were hoping to live out, is solidarity: a sitting-with, a widening of the table.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem the way that he did, he demonstrated solidarity with the impoverished and the outcasted. To those who were marginalized, who’d experienced harm at the hands of the Roman empire, Jesus’ entry meant rescue. The kin-dom that he envisioned meant refuge.

And to the empire, Jesus’ entry was a threat. Here was a man who may also have been divine, who was for Jewish and non-Jewish people alike, who was for peoples of all ethnicities, and who was for women and the impoverished. Just imagine the solidarity that could inspire. And imagine the threat that would pose to an empire.

Yuri and Malcolm

One example of loving, courageous solidarity was the friendship between two famous American activists: Yuri Kochiyama and Malcolm X.

Yuri was the child of Japanese immigrants. She spent years during her childhood imprisoned in an internment camp in Arkansas. She was an organizer of East Coast Japanese Americans for Redress and Reparations. Malcolm X was a leader in the Black civil rights movement, a Muslim minister, and an outspoken supporter of Black self-determination and self-defense.

Upon meeting Malcolm, Yuri ignited their friendship with a handshake, congratulating him for giving his people direction. After Malcolm’s untimely death, Yuri remained committed to justice for Black, Latinx and Asian American communities. The FBI despised Yuri, describing her as a “ring leader” of Black nationalists and a “Red Chinese agent.” (It’s beside the point, but as a reminder, Yuri wasn’t Chinese.)

On the Sunday that Malcolm X was murdered as he spoke in a ballroom, most of the audience fell to the ground after the gunfire, crawling away for safety. And who could blame them? But Yuri headed toward the injured Malcolm, who was lying on the floor.

There’s a famous photo of this moment, but I have to warn you that it’s graphic, depicting Malcom’s wounds. In this photo, Yuri is cradling Malcolm’s head in her lap. 

Says the liturgist Cole Arthur Riley: “Yuri Kochiyama was there when Malcolm was assassinated. She cradled his head in her lap and wept. She did not run from him or his blood but ran to it. This was love. And it is how we will survive– by standing in the tragedy together even when it feels like a great risk to ourselves. As we gather in solidarity on the margins, we’ll one day find that what was once margin has become a new and sacred center.”

The Political Theater of Jesus

I want to rewind now, to the night before Jesus’ triumphal procession into Jerusalem. Because most of us know what’s coming after this – after this grand, celebratory procession. On the night before Jesus’ act of political theater, he dines with his friends and disciples.

Mary, the sister of Lazarus, pours out this incredibly expensive perfume to wash Jesus’ feet. (This slide is a piece of artwork from an artist I couldn’t identify. It depicts that moment – Jesus and his disciples gathered around a table, reclining. And Mary at Jesus’ feet, heaping love onto his body. I like that it shows how uncomfortable this moment must have been for the disciples – this act of lavish generosity, maybe foolishness.) This perfume was an expensive gift meant to perfume the dead bodies of loved ones. 

And if I try and think from the perspective of Mary, who was Jesus’ dear friend, who knew the kind of holy trouble he was making, who saw the ruckus that arose after he raised her brother from the dead – I imagine that she must have known, even without saying it aloud, that Jesus’ life was in danger from the empire he threatened.

And in a gesture of love, she poured out this treasure over him – cradled his feet as this essence of death ran over them. And then I can’t help but think of Yuri and Malcolm – and that in solidarity, we hold one another in our griefs, we cradle each others’ pain with tenderness. And then we carry on the work that is sacred to those with whom we stand. Jesus knew that solidarity embrittles empire. His solidarity was not only with Jews. His solidarity was also with people from outside of his religious community, outside of his ethnic community. It was with all experiencing marginalization at the hands of empire.

Cole Arthur Riley goes on to say: “Solidarity is born not out of guilt, but out of love, of admiration. When you love something, you want to protect it. Guilt too easily devolves into shame, which makes you afraid of people and yourself; shame is not an adequate protector. It is a hider. And it is so much more than unity. Unity is a part of it. Understanding, education, lament, these are all critical in cultivating a robust solidarity, but as a dear friend once put it, ‘Hospitality says I welcome you, Mutuality says I need you, Solidarity says I stand with you.’ It is a unity that requires something of us. It requires that we enter the fight.”

Palm Sunday was not Jesus’ sole act of solidarity. Up to that point in his life, his arrival in Jerusalem was a culminating act of solidarity, but it was preceded by a whole life lived in such a manner.

Empire was watching on that day, two thousand years ago, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem under a banner of peace. And empire is still watching today. This Palm Sunday is another theatrical call to us. Our times are not easy – and they never are. 

Again, to Jesus, this was no ordinary main street stroll. This was an act of political theater. With his body, and with his life, he told a story about power – who has it and who doesn’t. And he stood in solidarity with those who followed in his way. And it is our work to be in solidarity with those with whom Jesus was in solidarity. It is our work to be in solidarity with the holy conspiracy of God, to be in deep enough love, to have deep enough admiration, for those on the margins.  

To repeat the words of Cole Arthur Riley: “This is love. And it is how we will survive – by standing in the tragedy together even when it feels like a great risk to ourselves. As we gather in solidarity on the margins, we’ll one day find that what was once margin has become a new and sacred center.”

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